Māori business: Six digital weavers

Yesterday, Suzanne Middleton looked at how Māori businesses are adapting to to the digital age. Today, she profiles six Māori​ business using technology to transform the way they work.

Tahu Pōtiki

As a former CEO of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, and currently representing the Ōtākou Rūnanga on the tribe’s governing body, Tahu Pōtiki has seen Ngāi Tahu’s assets grow from $181 million in their landmark Treaty settlement of 1998, to the current asset base of $1.1 billion, with equity of $809 million and loans making up the difference.

“We’ve been very lucky in the thinking of the leadership right from the outset,” Tahu explains. "... Innovations negotiated into the settlement, like the right of first refusal on government assets coming up for sale, allowed for opportunities which are ongoing and easily transferred into new business ventures.

“We’re very dependent on digital innovation in tourism. We’ve developed platforms that allow us to work quite intimately with the travel sector in China. It’s one of the areas where we’ve had to think smart. 70 percent of the Chinese tourists who come here visit a Ngāi Tahu Tourism venture. The tourism company is into a serious amount of product innovation. They’ve redeveloped part of the Dart River operation to appeal to the Chinese market.”

Pōtiki says it’s in the smaller Māori businesses that he’s seeing more innovation with technology. “They can see the commercial opportunities.”

Ellis Fibre

When Ellis Fibre in Dunedin advertised its new polyester and alpaca pet beds on Facebook in July, orders flooded in and it sold 2,500 in six weeks. Soon, it was inundated with photos of happily snoozing dogs, which it posted on Facebook, creating more demand. It’s this blend of innovative product design and great marketing that makes Ellis Fibre a success. It exports 2,000 – 3,000 lavender pillows to China per week, with exports to the USA and Korea as well. 30 percent of its bedding sales are now online and owner Glenn Alexander, of Ngāti Raukawa descent, sees more sales going that way. 

“I think that most people have no clue how the internet is going to transform business,” he says. “Technology is expanding at such a rate, it will be like a virtual shop, you’ll be able to buy anything online.”

Māui Studios Aotearoa

Vincent Egan, Madison Henry and Patrick Hussey are Māui Studios Aotearoa, a multidisciplinary design business working in Te Ao Māori (the Māori world) and dedicated to exploring creativity and innovation through design. They’re young, intelligent Māori entrepreneurs who know they can make a living through fusing design disciplines, and using the latest technologies, while holding on to and discovering their Māori culture and values.

With a style influenced by Street Fighter, Dragon Ball Z, and Japanese anime, they’ve created a graphic novella Sun Tamer, retelling the traditional story of Māui and the sun. As Henry says: “This is a representation of the start of our journey, on our quest towards legend status.”

Their goal is to do as much as possible with Māori. “A lot of the reason is giving back to Māori communities which gave us so much growing up, like Araiteuru Whare Hauora,” says Egan.

Currently they are telling Aotearoa stories through design and promotional films, and focusing on illustration, graphic novels and animation with new company Māui Empire.

Ngāi Tahu Tourism

Ngāi Tahu’s commercial interests include investment companies, commercial property, farming, seafood and tourism, with Ngāi Tahu Tourism delighting close to a million visitors a year at Shotover Jet, Dart River Jet Safaris, Hollyford Track, Franz Josef Glacier Guides, Glacier Hot Pools, Rainbow Springs, The Agrodome and Hukafalls Jet.

Using technology to enhance their customers’ experience is vital, as CEO Quinton Hall explains: “Delivering authentic and exceptional experiences to our customers is at the heart of what we do. In terms of growth the key for us is to keep their needs at the forefront and to strive to constantly find new and innovative ways of improving our experiences. Innovation can come from internal or external sources, and our goal is to create a framework that can surface these ideas to the key decision makers quickly and efficiently. Ultimately technology becomes the enabler, whether it is creating a new experience, enhancing the current offering, creating frictionless customer interactions, a more connected guest experience, or making it easier for our distribution channels to sell us.”

Whale Watch Kaikōura

It put Kaikōura on the tourist map in 1987, taking visitors out to sea for an opportunity to spot the resident sperm whales, employing local people, and operating from a strong base of Māori values. Whale Watch Kaikōura is a multi award-winning business, owned and operated by the indigenous Kāti Kuri people of Kaikōura, with around 100,000 visitors per year, combines the latest technology with the Māori values of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and manaakitanga (hospitality and sharing). 

Its four purpose-built catamarans are powered by Hamilton Jets and designed to have minimal impact on marine mammals. On board, visitors watch animations showing the two kilometre deep Kaikōura Canyon beneath the boat and some of the creatures that live there. The Whale Watch Kaikōura app gives information on the resident sperm whales, other whale species in the area, history, GPS tracking, whale sounds, and opportunities to become involved in local conservation programmes such as tree planting and work to protect the endangered Hutton’s shearwater.

te Pā Wines

In a curve of the Wairau River in Marlborough, the MacDonald family’s te Pā Wines grow grapes and make award-winning wines. te Pā is a Māori family business on land at Wairau Bar, where their whānau have lived for 800 years. 

Haysley MacDonald explains how they work and live: “We’re the caretakers of the land around us, and we take that role seriously,” he says. “The land is there to be used, and through the land, we are able to create a legacy for our whānau. By caring for the land and utilising it – once as farm land, now as te Pā vineyard – we’ve made it productive so it provides income for the family and for our team. We’re always on the lookout for something new and smart to get the edge over our competitors, whether that’s market research, a responsive website that offers a search tool to drive people to their closest te Pā stockist, or a dynamic social media presence that takes our wine, people and stories to the world.”